The end to what may be baseball's last great pennant race did not come until three hours and six minutes after the end of the Atlanta Braves' regular season. It came on Sunday, after the Braves and the San Francisco Giants occupied the National League West's top two spots for 110 straight days. It came after 207 victories between the two of them, the most ever by intradivisional foes. It came after the two teams shared identical records for three excruciating days, during which the Braves watched more television than your average teenager and nervously packed suitcases for a trip they prayed not to make.
When at last the end did come—its arrival signaled in Atlanta with a colorful clamor of fireworks bursting across the southern twilight—the Braves lifted champagne to their lips. California champagne. Golden State Vintners champagne, a varietal with a watercolor rendering of the Golden Gate Bridge on its label. Atlanta had vanquished San Francisco to reach the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. The champagne went down sweetly and quickly. In moments the Braves' clubhouse was littered with green glass bottles, drained to an emptiness that matched the emotional reservoirs of two gallant ball clubs. "There's relief," Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine said, explaining why the team's third straight divisional championship elicited such an intense celebration. "It's been a lot of fun. But it's been so mentally grueling."
In the end Atlanta and San Francisco were separated by three hours, a starting pitcher or two, and, most important, just one game. "One of the greatest races of all time," Brave pitching coach Leo Mazzone called it. It was only the 10th time in this century that two clubs had reached the final day of the season deadlocked, but the first time it had happened with so many wins: 103 apiece. And with this being the last year that postseason play is reserved for winners only, this may well be the last time such drama will occur. Next season brings a third tier of playoffs, wild-card teams and that famous black-and-blue division, the NL Central.
"It's sad for baseball, really." Atlanta third baseman Terry Pendleton said. "It's sad because in the future these games wouldn't have meant a darn thing." Had next year's realignment plan been in effect this season, the Braves would have won the East by seven games and the Giants would have won the West by 22. Said Atlanta shortstop Jeff Blauser, "In a three-division format, you would have seen both teams taking it easy, just trying to keep guys healthy. I don't appreciate what's happening next year."
This year Atlanta used the entirety of the schedule to gain a third straight entry to postseason play, the last two of which ended cruelly in World Series defeats that included seven games lost by one run. The Braves, who trailed the Giants by 10 games on July 22, made a 54-19 run after the All-Star break, the fourth-best such record in history. With the help of an eight-game San Francisco losing streak, they caught the Giants on Sept. 10, capping a burst in which they made up 7½ games in 19 days; they passed the Giants the next day and never again fell out of first. Atlanta went 28-9 over the final six weeks, including a 9-0 record in games following a loss.
"It was a matter of the Giants' giving us a chance to get back into it," Atlanta's Fred McGriff said. "And they gave it to us. They're a good team, but the best team won." McGriff is the slugging first baseman who arrived on July 20 in a trade with the San Diego Padres. He immediately energized the Atlanta lineup with his bat and brightened the clubhouse with a demeanor that makes his good friend Barney the dinosaur seem downright gloomy.
"I love Barney," McGriff said. "He's my favorite TV character. I've got a three-year-old boy, and when it's my turn to baby-sit, I just put on Barney and that's it. I'm going to get my 11-month-old girl started too. Barney's the greatest thing to happen to me."
Well, kids, this is what this race came down to: On the final day of the season, the Braves started Glavine, the 1991 Cy Young Award winner and the first National League pitcher in 21 years with three straight 20-win seasons, while the Giants gave the ball to Salomon Torres, a 21-year-old righthander with eight major league starts who began this season at Double A Shreveport. The disparity in the pitching depth of the two clubs was never more obvious or more critical.
No wonder that early Friday night, with three games left in the season and the teams tied, Atlanta president Stan Kasten exited from the press elevator at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium without the slightest trace of worry on his face. "We have Steve Avery [17-6], Greg Maddux [19-10] and Tom Glavine [21-6] pitching against the Colorado Rockies," he said. "We could not have it set up any better."
Still, just as Kasten was gushing confidence, a more concerned Mazzone was gathering his pitching staff in the outfield during batting practice. The Braves had fallen into a tie with San Francisco the night before after losing to Houston 10-8, in a game in which starting pitcher John Smoltz struggled with his location. That extended an eight-game slump by the starting pitchers in which they went 3-4 with a 4.75 ERA and in which, for the first time all season, they had thrown a nearly equal split of breaking balls and fastballs.